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The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle (Terecay, Yellow-Spotted Amazon River Turtle), Podocnemis unifilis, in the Wild and Captivity – Care in Captivity


Please see Part I of this article for a discussion of this turtle’s natural history.


As mentioned in Part I of this article, I expect sideneck turtles of various species to become more common in the pet trade in the future.  The information provided here is largely applicable to all 6 species in the genus Podocnemis, but please write in for further details concerning turtles other than the yellow-spotted sideneck.

Please bear in mind that yellow-spotted sidenecks grow quite large, and are best kept by those with the space for a very large aquarium or outdoor pond.  If it becomes available at some point, the smaller red-headed Amazon sideneck, P. erythrocephala, would be more easily managed in the home.

Enclosure and Physical Environment

This turtle spends most of it’s time in the water, leaving only to bask or lay eggs.  An adult male or smaller female (some females top out at 12 inches, while others attain 18 inches in length) will require an aquarium of at least 100 gallons in capacity, but a larger enclosure would be preferable.  Turtles kept in aquariums should be afforded the opportunity to swim and forage in larger, temporary quarters, such as a child’s wading pool, when possible.  Large females will require a custom aquarium or outdoor pond.

A sturdy, dry basking platform must be provided.  Adult sidenecks are quite vigorous, so you may need to attach a piece of driftwood or cork bark to the tank’s side with aquarium silicone in order to hold the platform in place.  This will leave the area below the platform free for swimming – rock piles take up too much space, and can be rough on turtle plastrons.

Hatchlings and juveniles can be raised in smaller aquariums, with Zoo Med Turtle Docks or R-Zilla Basking Platforms used as land areas.


Filtration is best accomplished with a strong canister filter, as internal filters will be moved about or broken by these active turtles.  Be sure to choose the most powerful model suitable for the particular enclosure that you maintain.

In common with most aquatic turtles, sidenecks are messy feeders.  They should be offered meals outside of their aquarium, in a plastic storage bin that can easily be dumped and cleaned.  Doing so will go a long way in maintaining water quality and clarity, and will extend the time between filter medium changes.

Light and Heat

Yellow-spotted sidenecks are heliothermic (sun-basking) reptiles and require a source of UVB light in order to produce Vitamin D3 (which is required for calcium metabolism).  The Zoo Med Power Sun UV Mercury Vapor Bulb provides UVB and will help maintain a basking site temperature of 90-95 F.  For smaller aquariums housing young turtles, the Zoo Med Reptisun 10.0 High Output UVB bulb will likely be preferable, as the mercury vapor model is designed for larger enclosures.  Be sure to add an incandescent spotlight for warmth as well.

Yellow spotted sideneck turtles bask frequently in the wild, and require prolonged exposure to UVB in captivity.  If your turtles are nervous and drop into the water when disturbed, consider housing them in a quiet location until they adjust, lest their basking time be compromised.

Water temperature should be kept at 76-80 F.  You may need to protect your submersible heater from the turtles’ attentions with a piece of PVC pipe into which holes have been drilled.

The day/night cycle should be maintained at 12 hours daylight, 12 hours darkness.  If the room’s air temperature falls at night, use an R-Zilla Infra-red Ceramic Heat Emitter ….leaving the basking light on all night will disrupt the turtle’s normal activity patterns, and should be avoided.


Young sidenecks of all species lean towards an animal-based diet, becoming more herbivorous as they mature.  Offer as wide a variety of foods as is possible.

Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle Food is specifically formulated for sidenecks and turtles with similar nutritional requirements, and can be the base of the diet for both growing and adult animals.  It is low in protein, which is an important consideration for older sideneck turtles.  When fed to growing animals, this food should be alternated with Tetra Repto-Min Food Sticks and Suprema Food Sticks.

Hatchlings and young turtles should also be offered regular feedings of whole animals, including earthworms, fish, mealworms and their pupae, waxworms, butterworms, crickets, crayfish and small snails.  Canned grasshoppers, snails, shrimp and caterpillars are now available, and, along with freeze dried prawn, should be used to increase dietary variety.

Be sure to include plant material (see below) in the diet of growing sidenecks…animals refusing to switch to a vegetable-based diet as they mature is commonly encountered problem.  Acclimating turtles to all foods while young will help to avoid this situation.

Adults do best on a wide variety of vegetables, including kale, romaine, endive, dandelion, bok choy, cucumber, mustard greens, collard greens, yams and carrots.  Fruits should be offered sparingly, although apples are fine on a regular basis.  The composition of their diet should be varied with seasonally available greens.  Spinach, which binds calcium, should be avoided.

Provide your turtles with the tough stems of kale and bok choy, as these will help to keep the cutting edges of the jaws trimmed.

Captive Longevity

Captive longevity exceeds 20 years.  Please see Part I of this article for notes on a long-lived group of giant sideneck turtles (P. expansa).


Sidenecks are ideally suited for outdoor ponds.  Please see A Survey of Amphibians, Reptiles and Insects Suitable for Maintenance in Outdoor Ponds – Part II, the Red-Eared Slider, Chrysemys scripta elegans for general considerations.


You can read about current Turtle Conservation Funds projects focusing on sideneck and other turtles at:


Image referenced from Wikipedia.

The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle , Podocnemis unifilis, in the Wild and Captivity: Natural History – Part 1

The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle (Terecay, Yellow-Spotted Amazon River Turtle), Podocnemis unifilis, and several relatives were popular pets in the 1970’s, but soon became unavailable due to over-collection (largely for the food trade) and the resulting limitations on importations.  Australian sidenecks soon filled the void, and remain in the spotlight today.

However, captive breeding efforts are beginning to show some promise, and the yellow-spotted and other South American species are poised, it seems, to re-enter the per trade.  These sizable turtles are not for everyone, but we need to learn more about them…hobbyists with some experience and space might help greatly in that regard.  Hopefully the following information will help you to decide.


Sideneck turtles are classified in the Testudine sub-order Pleurodira, while all other turtles are placed in the sub-order Cryptodira.  Approximately 75 species of sideneck turtles are found in Australia (where they form the vast majority of the aquatic turtle fauna), South America east of the Andes, sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar.

The vast majority of the world’s turtles draw their heads straight back into the shell, largely concealing it within. Sideneck turtles retract their heads on an angle, so that the head is pointing sideways when withdrawn, and both it and the neck remain partially exposed.   This limits the protective value of the shell, and may explain why there are no terrestrial sideneck turtles (mammalian predators would easily prey upon them) and why, outside of Australia, they have been largely out-competed by typical aquatic turtles.

Physical Description

The domed carapace (upper shell) averages 12 inches in length, although particularly large females can attain 18 inches.  The shell is attractively colored in muted olive, gray or brown, and bright yellow-orange spots mark the head.  These fade with age but often remain discernable through adulthood.

Males are the smaller sex and have spotted heads with greenish eyes while females have plain, buff-colored heads and black eyes.


This turtle inhabits northern and central South America, including the Caribbean drainages of Guyana, French Guiana, Venezuela and Columbia.  It also occurs in the upper tributaries of the Amazon River in Columbia, southern Venezuela, eastern Ecuador, northeastern Peru, northern Bolivia and Brazil.  There are unconfirmed reports of small populations in Trinidad and Tobago.


Yellow-spotted sidenecks favor quiet, slow-moving waters such as ponds, lakes, swamps, flooded llanos (grasslands), oxbows and the backwaters of larger rivers.

Status in the Wild

This species’ status is largely unknown, but it is collected in many areas for food.   It is listed on Appendix II of CITES and designated as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN.

Click: The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle , Podocnemis unifilis, in the Wild and Captivity: Natural History – Part 2, to read the second part of this article.

Image referenced from Wikipedia.


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